We worked with the Quality of Life Technology Center to redesign the kitchen experience for aging adults by resolving the physical challenges that make kitchen use dangerous.
4 months (part-time)
Aug. 2012 – Nov. 2012
Benet Clark, Cameron Hall, Shivani Sheth, Julia Swearer, Ryan Vanston
Established design objectives
Led meetings with experts
Designed new interactions
Engineered physical prototype
Managing editor of final report
The need for a kitchen that allows for Aging in Place
According to a 2010 survey by AARP, 89% of Americans age 45 and up want to “age in place” by staying in their homes as long as possible instead of a nursing home. One of the biggest barriers to maintaining independence into old age is continuing to prepare meals for oneself. As one ages, the traditional kitchen becomes increasingly difficult and dangerous to use.
- reaching up high to retrieve items from the cabinet or freezer
- bending over to place food in the oven or load the dishwasher
- seeing available items in dark refrigerators
- reaching in to refrigerators to grab food from the back
- lifting heavy pans and placing them into the oven
We redesigned the refrigerator, oven, dishwasher, and cabinets to enable Aging in Place.
- New ways to interact with these items improve safety and ease of use by minimizing the physical challenges.
- The original interactions are kept as an alternative way to use the items.
- A traditional aesthetic avoids “old people” stereotypes and increases marketability.
- Items can be purchased separately and integrated into existing kitchen layouts to avoid the cost of renovating an entire kitchen.
Check out each of the 4 kitchen items:
French doors are lighter and easier to open than one door
Vegetable and freezer drawers are positioned higher so that the user does not need to bend down to retrieve food
Retractable steps are located in the space below the refrigerator and can help people reach food on the top shelves
A “lazy Susan” carousel helps people reach items by moving them from the back to the front
More lighting helps people see their food without removing it
Push the cabinet up to free up valuable countertop space
Pull the cabinet down with a small tug to bring top shelves closer to eye level for increased visibility and access without the back strain from reaching up high
At the push of a button, the rack can be raised and locked into place for loading instead of requiring the user to strain their back as they fill it
The traditional loading method is still available
The front loading door is still available for access to clean the oven or for putting dishes on other racks
The side door can be used to slide heavy dishes into and out of the oven without spills
The oven sits on top of the countertop so that the person doesn’t have to bend down to open it
Borrowing insights from our partner, the Quality of Life Technology Center
The Quality of Life Technology (QoLT) Center is a National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center focused on the development of intelligent systems that enable older adults and people with disabilities to live more independently.
We had the opportunity to tour one of the QoLT kitchen research labs to see examples of their solutions. Their design decisions highlighted the needs of older adults based on their user research.
- The experts introduced the concept of Aging in Place which we adopted as our vision.
- Based on common physical challenges, we narrowed our scope to focus on 4 high-impact kitchen items (refrigerator, oven, dishwasher, and cabinets).
- We were encouraged to follow the standard dimensions for kitchen items so that each of our products would fit into existing kitchen layouts.
- The experts helped us to identify the most common challenges of kitchen use.
Interviews with members of the aging population to identify design considerations
We conducted 9 interviews with participants age 55 and over to get their thoughts on kitchen remodels and what they considered to be the most important aspects of their kitchen use.
- Kitchen remodels are seen as a real treat that they worked hard for, not necessarily a pragmatic decision.
- Cost is a major concern.
- They want a kitchen with a traditional style, not one with the stereotypical “old people” aesthetic.
- They want family and friends to be able to use the appliances when they come over for Thanksgiving.
Performing market research to gain inspiration and predict feasibility and cost
We evaluated standard and high-end appliances to identify their short-comings, note sought-after features, and review the price range. We also evaluated commercial designs for inspiration.
Brainstorming new ways to interact with the kitchen items
We generated several concepts for each of the 4 kitchen items. We were inspired by items that we evaluated during market research but also interactions that we experienced in our past.
10 initial concepts
3 Design Cycles
Our designs are a product of deep discussions amongst our team, weekly meetings with our QoLT partner, and bi-weekly design reviews with peers. I acted as an advocate for aging adults and helped to evaluate the effectiveness of different design alternatives. I worked closely with the industrial designer to produce renderings.
5 Design Objectives and Constraints
As we evaluated the design alternatives, we kept the following design objectives and constraints in mind.
- Minimize the physical challenges.
- Follow standard kitchen dimensions.
- Keep the traditional interaction as an alternative.
- Avoid the stereotypical “old people” aesthetic.
- Keep costs comparable to the luxury appliance market.
We presented sketches to our partner and peers for feedback.
As we gained confidence in our designs, we made more realistic prototypes to showcase the use of materials for feedback.
Changes based on feedback
- The refrigerator no longer has a separate, attached freezer.
- There’s a see-through door on the oven so the user can monitor their food.
- The oven’s side door lifts into a hidden compartment.
- The oven can sit on top of a countertop instead of requiring a special layout.
Over the span of 3 weeks, we made physical prototypes for 3 items (all but the oven) to explore the feasibility of the mechanics. Through this process, we did not detect any functional design flaws and gained confidence.
- The mechanism to raise and lower the dishwasher basket needs to be reinforced for stability. We raised the entire base as a solution.
- The mobile cabinets are very heavy and that means that they are not very stable. We need to find a better way to secure them to the wall.
We created a final report to pass knowledge to the next team
In a 40-page report, we documented the research findings, design process, and design specifications for the client and new designers taking over the project. This was the first time that I edited such an extensive engineering report.
The next team continued iterating on our mobile cabinet concept
Our partner, QoLT, saw promise in our cabinet design. A new team of designers continued to work on it.